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  • Manly Natural Family Planning:Cultivating Catholic Masculinity
  • Katherine Dugan73

Matt Fradd is a 40-something self-proclaimed Catholic apologist who hosts a podcast called "Pints with Aquinas." On a recent episode, he and another popular Catholic speaker, Jason Evert, discussed what it is like to use Natural Family Planning (NFP).74 The conversation turned on the fact that Catholics who use NFP tend to have large families—Jason has eight children and Matt has four. Referencing a cultural stigma that I have also heard in my ethnographic work among NFP-practicing men, the two men joked about what it is like to go on a family trip to Costco and hear, "Don't you guys have a TV?" Fradd jumped in, proud of his retort for when someone asks this of him and his wife, "If you think watching TV is better than having sex, you're not doing it right!"75

This pride in family size with a tongue-in-cheek reference to their great sex lives is a common theme in how the men in my ethnographic study talk about practicing NFP. A young couple in their mid-twenties, Andy and Sophie, looked at each other and winked before Andy told me that having to wait a bit to have sex just "makes it a lot better!"76 At a conference in Ohio, I listened to a man in his thirties talk about how hard it had been to get over his addiction to pornography, but now that he has, "I want no one more than I want my wife."77 Sitting on their porch in suburban Boston, I listened to Charles talk about how he learned how to be a good father by having good role models around him.78 A young man in Worcester, Massachusetts told me all about the ways he manages the fertility charts in their marriage.79 As I have [End Page 34] turned my ethnographic lens to hear these men's experience, I have listened to men describe the loss they feel after miscarriages and learned about devotions to St. Joseph and St. Maximilian Kolbe as they navigate how to be husbands. This is the making of a kind of Catholic masculinity in the twenty-first century that is interwoven with practicing NFP and building families.

These men and their marriages promote a strict gender complementarianism that is indebted to the patriarchal structures of Catholicism: men are the head of the families, women are to care for children. This is, of course, patriarchy at work.80 But as I have sat at kitchen tables and on living room couches, in backyards and on Zoom interviews with proud NFP-practicing men, "patriarchy" is not exactly what I am hearing. Michael Kimmel—the sociologist of manhood—once described the like-spirited Promise Keepers as a "gentler, kinder patriarchy." Noting the real misogyny and homophobia embedded in the workings of this evangelical Protestant group, Kimmel also observed the "immense sincerity of the guys . . . the earnestness of their searching . . . most Promise Keepers are . . . friends, confidants, therapists, and partners, promising to listen carefully to their wives and children."81 Something similar is at work among NFP Catholic men: they are invested in family life and trying to be good husbands and Catholics.

In the intended spirit of provocation of this forum, what if patriarchy is too blunt a term to describe NFP-practicing Catholic men? Labeling (and then dismissing) this subculture as patriarchy makes it hard to see the actual men at work on an actual formation of Catholic manhood; it makes it difficult to understand the ways these men's lives are stitched into the life of contemporary U.S. Catholicism. Of course, these men are part of a patriarchal system. But my interlocutors suggest that more than manhood defined by patriarchy, there is Catholic masculinity being worked on through particular enactments of forms of Catholic marriage and family life.

Masculinities Studies, as it has studied men in a range of religious traditions, has challenged scholars to examine how "unmarked" male bodies have under-articulated power. To ignore the particularities of [End Page 35] men's lives and anxieties, Sarah Imhoff points out, gives male...


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